HC Deb 06 March 1946 vol 420 cc341-77

Order for Second Reading read.

3.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Key)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

It is with great pride and pleasure that I rise to move the Second Reading of this Bill. There is no greater social problem facing the people of this country today than that of housing, and at no time have there been placed before the House financial proposals for tackling that problem more generous in amount, more consistent in principle, or more complete in character than those embodied in this Bill. For 25 years I have tried to play my part in local government in tackling this problem. From very wide contact with my fellow councillors and aldermen up and down the country, I know they welcome these proposals as being in excess not only of their widest expectations, but even of their highest hopes. Their acceptance by the House will provide an added impetus to the building programmes of those local governing authorities, whose activities will furnish by far the larger part of the accommodation that is necessary to satisfy our great housing needs.

In giving consideration to these financial proposals, we had to take into account a number of factors of real importance. The first of these was the standard of housing provided for our people. This we say must be improved, not merely above that of the jerrybuilt boxes normally provided by private industry for the poor but above that, too, which was provided by local authorities in the period between the wars. Not only must the quality of appurtenances and amenities be made higher but the overall area of the accommodation must be increased. The day has gone by when working people will remain content with the cribbed and cabined quarters of the past. Our new homes must be reflective of as well as conducive to that wider vision, that deeper and broader outlook of which our people have recently given such positive proof.

Secondly, these better homes must be obtainable by our people at rents which they can afford to pay. Greater living space, better bathrooms, and more up-to-date kitchens must not be secured at the cost of a reduced standard of food and clothing and common comforts. How often have we seen in the past families struggling to pay the increased rent and the increased cost of travel to and from their work which new homes so often involve, only to have to abandon the struggle in the end. There are many sorrowful stories which, from my own limited experience, I could tell of housewives who denied themselves adequate food and clothing, ran into debt with tradesmen, fell into bad health through worry and care in the vain hope of retaining for their men and their children the better homes they so much deserve, and then, broken in health and heart, have been forced to return to the bad old overcrowded conditions from which they longed so much to be free. Our rents must be such as will allow our people not merely to exist in our new houses, straggling against hunger, debt and worry, but really to live in them, comfortable and content.

Our third problem—if we are wise and sufficiently determined—will, though a big one now, be but temporary. It is that of the high cost of building these new and better homes. High cost must not prevent us from building now, but costs must not be allowed to remain so high as to frustrate the fulfilment of our task: the building of better homes at reasonable rents for the poorest of our people. Costs must come down; high subsidies must not be an incentive to maintaining high costs, and, since we are determined that high costs shall be temporary, high subsidies must be temporary too. These exceptional conditions must be accepted at present, but, as I have indicated, can be accepted only as a temporary phase. Their removal must be secured quickly by improved organisation and output in the building industry and the building materials industry. These results can most effectively be secured by the production of houses, and the Minister looks, therefore, to local authorities to go ahead with their building as quickly as possible. For this reason I wish to make it quite clear that the subsidies now proposed—and this applies to the rates of contributions as well as to the Exchequer contributions—are maxima, and it is the intention of the Government that they shall be reduced at the earliest opportunity.

I therefore draw special attention to the provision made in Clause 16 of this Bill for a review of the contributions. This provision is that, immediately after the beginning of December of this year the Minister of Health is to consider whether it is expedient that he should make an Order, the draft of which is to be laid before the House, providing for a reduction of those contributions in relation to new houses completed after a date to be named in the Order, which will not be earlier than 30th June, 1947. The Minister, therefore, proposes to open negotiations with the associations of local authorities later in the year with a view to seeing that for houses completed after June, 1947, subsidies shall be at lower rates than those included in this Bill. Following six years of war, during which house building has been stopped in this country, and large numbers of houses have been destroyed by enemy action, the need for houses is acute and urgent. We face this need at a time when both the house building industry and the building materials industry are below their normal strength. Until these industries are restored to full strength, and until the first most urgent need has been met, our primary concentration must be to ensure that the greatest possible number of new separate homes of permanent construction find their way to those whose needs are most urgent. That means a primary concentration on the building of houses for letting by public authorities, who can most effectively discriminate between the housing needs of various applicants without regard to the length of their purse. That is why the Government have already announced that they look primarily to the local authorities, who have and have long had statutory responsibilities for housing and experience in the building and management of houses.

Let me get back to the three factors which I mentioned earlier, that we have to take into account as the basis of our calculations. First, so far as the character of the accommodation is concerned, we have taken as our average standard that of the three-bedroom house with modern equipment in bathroom, closet and kitchen, and with an overall living area of 900 square feet, plus 50 square feet for out-houses, which compares with 750 square feet in the Act of 1938. So far as the standard flat is concerned, the overall area is 800 square feet.

Then as to rents. For the standard house the assumed average net rent—i.e., rent less rates—is 10s. a week in urban areas and 7s. 6d. in agricultural areas. For flats it is 12s. This does not mean that every house shall be let at these figures, but, taking the country as a whole, it is regarded as a reasonable average to charge for the higher standard of accommodation that is to be provided. So far as cost is concerned, we have taken a figure which experience in approving tenders in the last six months has shown us was about the mean of tender prices for the country as a whole. These prices however we regard as temporary, and therefore the subsidies have been worked out on a temporary and not a permanent basis.

Mr. Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, will he inform the House what is the average figure for tenders?

Mr. Key

No, Sir, because as soon as we do that, all other tenders which we receive will go up to that figure.

First as to that standard house of 900 square feet to be let at a net rent of 10s. a week. We estimate the annual deficit on such a house—on a 60 years basis—to be £22. This we propose to divide between national and local funds—not on the old prewar proportion of 2 to 1; but on the basis of 3 to 1, that is, £16 10s.from national funds and £5 10s.from the rates. This compares with the existing subsidy of £5 10s from national funds and £2 15s.from the rates. This general standard contribution is likely to be applicable to the great majority of the houses built under the Bill. But there are special provisions in the Bill to deal with six particular types of exceptional case. First there are houses provided for the agricultural population. Here, as I have said, the average net rent—and I wish again to emphasise that it is only an estimated average, not a fixed determined figure—is 7s. 6d., instead of 10s. This 7s. 6d., by the by, was the figure which was advocated by the rural housing sub-committee of our Central Housing Advisory Committee as being particularly applicable to rural areas. To meet that reduction in rent, we propose that the subsidy should be increased from £22 to £28 10s., and because of the lower ability of rural authorities to meet housing expenditure from local rates the proportion of national to local subsidy is also to be increased. Of the £28 10s. £25 10s. is to be provided from national funds and the remaining £3 from the rates. One half of it, i.e., £1 10s., is to be levied on the particular county district concerned, and the other half provided from general county funds.

When it is said—as is said in an Amendment on the Order Paper—that these proposals are no sufficient stimulus to the provision of housing for the agricultural industry, I would point out first that the £28 10s.in this Bill compares with the £12 in the Act of 1938 for which the authors of that Amendment were responsible. Secondly, I would point out that the national subsidy of £25 10s. over 60 years is more than four times as much as the national subsidy at £10 for 40 years. Thirdly I would point out also, that in this Bill the national subsidy is nine times the local subsidy, whereas in the Bill of 1938 it was only five times. Surely a stimulant that is so much above proof, must commend itself to the delicate and experienced palates of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Then there are county districts—both rural and urban—where the rent paying capacity of the tenants is abnormally low. To meet the problems of these areas the Bill provides in Clause 3 that where in those districts the average rent of the houses in the district occupied by working people is substantially less than that in other local government areas of the same category, and where the local rate expenditure on housing is such that further high expenditure would impose an undue burden upon the ratepayers, the subsidy regulations applicable to houses provided for the agricultural cottagers should be applicable to those areas. In other words, in such areas the standard national subsidy is increased by £9 from £16 10s. 0d. to £ 25 10s. 0d., whilst the rate subsidy is reduced from £5 10s. 0d. to £3, and even that £3 is shared as to half by the district rate and half by the county.

The third special category is that of flats in areas where it is necessary, because of high site costs, to erect flats instead of houses. Here the average standard flat which we have taken is of 800 square feet, with an estimated rent of 12s. a week, and an average density of 35 flats to the acre. Where the cost of the land is between £1,500 and £4,000 an acre the total subsidy will be £38, and will be divided in the proportion of three to one; that is £28 10s.from national funds and £9 10s.from local rates. This subsidy will be increased by £2 in total when the price of land is £4,000 to £5,000 an acre; and by another £2 in total if the price rises to between £5,000 and £6,000; and, thereafter, by an additional £2 of total subsidy for each increase of £2,000 per acre in the cost of the land; these increases being divided, as the general subsidy is divided, in the relation of three to one between national and local funds.

Then there is another problem to which we have given attention. Somany of us in our poorest working-class areas have seen women toiling up endless stairs carrying their weekly shopping, lugging a perambulator or carrying the baby. We say that that ought to come to an end, and therefore, that in flats of four storeys or more, adequate and proper lifts should be provided. In order that these lifts may be provided, the subsidy per flat in these cases will be increased by £7 per flat from national funds and £3 10s.from local funds. There is, in this connection, one other point I ought to make. We do not want to see, unnecessarily, areas wholly occupied by big blocks of high storeyed flats. We want to see some sort of mixed and varied development. Therefore, in areas of mixed development, with high site costs, it has been decided that the appropriate flat subsidy shall apply to houses in that mixed development, on the understanding the accommodation provided by houses and flats together will be equal to what would have been provided by an overall average flat construction of three storey flats. In these cases the houses will get a very much higher subsidy than in the normal cases.

The fourth class to which I wish to draw attention is quite a new one so far as housing legislation is concerned. It is that of the houses that have to be provided in areas in which because of the risk of mining subsidence, it is necessary either to buy mineral support or increase expenditure on measures for safety. In such cases the subsidy will be increased by anything up to £2 per dwelling on the understanding that the rate subsidy is increased by an amount equal to half of the increase in the national subsidy.

The next class for special attention is that of areas where, because of low rateable value, high rate expenditure, and a particularly serious housing problem, expenditure upon housing would be abnormally burdensome; and Clause 7 of the Bill, therefore, provides for a reduction in the rate contribution with a corresponding increase in the national contribution. The overall housing subsidy in those areas will remain what it is. It is a matter of the distribution of that subsidy between national and local funds. I want to emphasise that this provision is not intended to deal with the problem of highly rated areas, as such. That has to be dealt with on lines other than those of mere housing finance. This is a provision designed to enable those authorities to cope with their exceptional problem. In areas where the existing rate burden, for all purposes, is 25 per cent. or more above the average rate burden for local authorities of a comparable character— that is, comparing rural area with rural area, urban district with urban district, borough with borough—where the overall rate burden is 25 per cent. greater, and where, also, a particular rate levy for meeting housing expenditure is double the average for comparable areas, then, in those areas, the rate subsidy can be reduced by any amount up to half of the normal, the amount of reduction in rate subsidy being compensated by an increase in the national subsidy. Instead of the national subsidy being £16 10s. a£and the local subsidy being £5 10s. in such an area the local subsidy can be reduced to £2 15s. whilst the national subsidy will be increased to £19 5s.

Now for the sixth class, which is that of houses built under approved schemes by non-traditional methods of construction when the cost is substantially higher than that of the traditional houses. Following research and experiment carried out with in the last year or two, the Government have arranged for the large-scale production by two methods of construction, by which it is hoped to secure a substantial increase in the number of permanent houses which can be completed during the next 12 months without any material prejudice to the production of houses of traditional construction. These two systems are, first, what is known as the B.I.S.F. house. That is a house of steel construction designed by the British Iron and Steel Federation. A company known as British Steel Houses, Limited, has been formed for the manufacture of these houses, and a number of contractors associated with the company have guaranteed to undertake contracts for the erection of the houses. This house is specially suitable for erection in urban areas in groups of 50 or more. Secondly, there is the Airey House, a house of precast concrete construction. This type lends itself to a design suitable to rural areas, and the houses are to be built by local builders who will be supplied, at a fixed price, with the necessary wall and floor components. The Government are making arrangements for the production of these components at a number of centres throughout the country.

It is expected, when this type of house has established itself on a large scale of production, that the cost will not be higher than that of traditional houses. At the outset this object cannot be secured, because it is just at the time when the supply of traditional houses is limited by the amount of labour available, that these additional houses can be obtained by the use of methods which make less call upon building labour. It is possible, in the initial stage, that the cost of these non-traditional houses will be higher than that of houses built on traditional lines. It is proposed in the Bill not only that the normal subsidy should apply to the non-traditional house, but that the Minister should be authorised to make a special additional grant, designed to keep the cost of the non-traditional house to the average of the traditional house in a particular locality. Advice to local authorities to enable detailed programmes to be worked out so as to relate their requirements to the productive capacity for the construction of these houses will, it is hoped, be issued in the next few days. That completes consideration of the six special classes, so far as the normal subsidy is concerned.

I come next to a number of cases in which undertakings have already been given to local authorities with regard to house construction. First there are those local authorities who, on Government instructions, erected houses during the war. There were, for instance, a number of such authorities who provided houses for transferred workers in factories engaged on war production. Some 2,400 houses were erected by local authorities in different parts of the country for that purpose. At the time when they were erected no subsidy was applicable to their construction, because the existing subsidy was for the purpose only of slum clearance or relief of overcrowding. The production departments, responsible for getting the houses constructed, made a contribution to the local authorities for the increased cost involved and the increased speed with which they were erected. In addition, an undertaking was given to local authorities that when the new subsidies became determined, those subsidies would be made applicable to the new houses which had been constructed. In Clause 10 of the Bill, the necessary provision for extending the normal subsidy to these houses has been made. Again, some 3,000 houses were erected for agricultural workers in agricultural areas. It is true that there existed a small subsidy for the erection of these cottages when the programme was undertaken in February, 1943, but the promise was also given that the wider subsidy should be made applicable when it was determined, and that is being done under Clause 10.

In Clause 9 another promise has been carried out. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, who was Minister of Health at the time when the Housing (Temporary Provisions) Bill was being considered, will remember that he gave a promise to the replies of the local authority associations, that the existing subsidy would be made applicable to all houses constructed from 4th August, 1944, and that when the subsidies came to be revised they would be made applicable as if the Act had been in operation at the time they were completed. Clause 9 extends to all those houses the appropriate subsidy provided under the Bill. There is one other class in this category, and that is the houses which were erected by the North-Eastern Housing Association, very much in the same way as the local authority houses were erected for accommodation of transferred workers. In this category there were about 600, and Clause 11 extends to them the appropriate subsidy.

These are the main financial proposals in the Bill. A goodly number of other housing administrative proposals are included, but I do not propose to worry the House by going through all these other Clauses. I would like, however, to draw attention to one. Clause 18 which provides for the setting up, in pursuance of arrangements made by the Minister, of one or more housing associations with power both to construct houses for local authorities—that means that the associations can act as contractors to the local authorities—or themselves provide houses, which the associations will own and manage. By this means, arrangements can be made to ensure that the needed provision of houses in any particular district does not fail by reason of the inability of the local authority to carry out this work to the fullest extent required. Such an association will be specially helpful to authorities whose administration and technical resources are inadequate to the urgent needs of the district, and in particular in the case of the provision of non-traditional houses. The houses so erected will receive the same subsidy from rates and taxes as is provided in the Bill for houses built by the local authorities. I wish to emphasise that the association is not for the purpose of supplanting the local authority, but for the purpose of supplementing the activities of the local authority, enabling them to carry out to the full the programme of house construction which is necessary in their areas.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

Is it the Minister who will take the initiative in regard to these associations, or the local authorities?

Mr. Key

It will be the Minister. As is provided in the Bill, the Minister will be able, through the money voted for the purpose, to loan to the association the necessary funds for the purpose of carrying out its operations.

Mr. Scollan (Renfrew, Western)

Is it proposed that these associations should act as contractors for housing schemes, in areas where the Ministry or a council is not building today? If that is the case, is it proposed that they shall enter into competition with the contractors and with local authorities, who carry out their own building, for plant and labour?

Mr. Key

No, Sir. The purpose of this association is to supplement, not to supplant, the activities of the local authorities. The work will be done not in competition with the local authorities, but in agreement with the local authorities, when the need is there for it.

I wish to make one or two comments upon an Amendment which appears on the Order Paper. To suggest, as is there suggested, that private industry and private enterprise are inhibited from taking a full part in the building programme shows, in my opinion, a complete misapprehension of the position. What private builders are asked to do is to build houses for local authorities, and every possible step will be taken to make it easy for the small private builder, who can show his capacity for house building, to join in the execution of that national programme. The Government have not precluded the erection of houses for sale, even in the present circumstances, as is evidenced by the number of houses for which licences have been issued. But it is, very definitely, the policy that the main emphasis shall be placed upon the provision of houses which can be let at reasonable rents to those who are in greatest need of shelter. The Government are confirmed in their view that the only effective way of securing that the great bulk of new houses built are for letting, is to concentrate on their provision through the local authorities. The need for houses to let is quantitatively much greater than the need for houses for sale. The experience of the 20 years between the wars, confirmed by our experience in licensing in the last six months, shows that the great majority of the houses provided by private enterprise are built for sale. A repetition of this primary concentration on provision for those who can afford to buy must be at the expense of houses for letting, and for that reason cannot be accepted by us.

Lastly, this legislation deals only with the provision of new houses. It is the first object of policy to restart the house building industry, and to concentrate on new house building all the productive capacity that can be attracted to it, in this year at any rate. That does not mean that this programme will not be supplemented later on by improved measures for securing reconditioning and conversion of houses, but it is deliberately intended to delay such action until new house building, on a sufficient scale, is under way, so as to avoid any risk of diverting productive capacity from its main task.

Such, in broad outline, are the main proposals of this Bill. I repeat, in ending, what I said when I began. These financial proposals are the most generous, the most consistent, the most complete that have ever been placed before this House. I hope that the House will accept them as such and, by so doing, enable our people to go on, not only to prove themselves ever more worthy of the better homes that these proposals are designed to provide, but to prove also that through ever more wisely elected local governing bodies, they, amid many other serious problems, can themselves solve the greatest social problem of our day.

4.6 p.m.

Mr. Willink (Croydon, North)

This is an important occasion for we are dealing with something which every Member of this House knows is of the greatest concern to thousands in every constituency in the country. After very considerable delay, the Government have introduced their proposals with regard to the necessary finance in connection with our housing problem. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, who moves with a sure foot, if I may say so, in all matters of local government, and who has expounded the technical details of the Bill with great clarity, has given the House the details of the Government's proposals. I think the most interesting passage in his speech was that in which he was able to inform the House that the Government had felt able to place orders on a large scale for two types of houses of non-traditional construction. Long have we been waiting—for 25 to 30 years—for the development of satisfactory houses of non-traditional construction. If these two types of houses are indeed successful, it will be a matter of great satisfaction to all of us. I hope that the Minister of Health, if he is replying, will be able to tell the House that there will be opportunities for all Members to see examples of these two developments.

Although the hon. Gentleman's exposition of the Bill was clear, that, I am afraid, does not mean that it was, in the eyes of my right hon. Friends and hon. Friends on this side of the House, an exposition of proposals which are satisfactory or adequate to the needs of the day. Indeed, there was nothing novel in the principles which the hon. Gentleman described. They were what we expected, and they are of limited scope and marked by a political prejudice, in our view, which is going to limit the progress of housing. [An HON. MEMBER: "Limit the price."] These proposals are costly. They were, I think, bound to be costly in present circumstances. But that is not the burden of our criticism. The burden of our criticism is that the Government's proposals are deliberately designed on a plan which will not relieve the housing shortage, as we believe it could be relieved by a policy, more objective and more practical. That is their vice, and that is why I propose to deal with the question of what would be desirable in the way of housing finance, rather than with the details of local government financial proposals, on many of which we are in complete agreement, subject to examination in Committee stage.

Before I come to the main points of criticism on the grounds of inadequacy, there are one or two broad points with regard to housing subsidies which I think should be stressed when we are asked to provide—and rightly asked to provide—for this short emergency period, very high subsidies at great cost. To make these two points satisfactorily, may I put the cost of these subsidies in another form, but I hope quite accurately, and compare them with the subsidies in force just before the war. Under a succession of Conservative Ministers of Health, in the four or five years before the war, housing had been making greater progress than at any time in the history of the country. I notice, at the moment, that a very large local authority is making great play with its progress during the years 1934–38 in connection with slum clearance. That was made possible by the legislation passed by the two National Governments between 1933 to 1938.

In my view, a subsidy for housing is, at best, a necessary evil. It is not, in my view, a perfect method from the point of view of achieving justice as between man and man. At that time, it was limited to certain fields—slum clearance, the abatement of overcrowding and certain features of rural housing. The standard urban subsidy just before the war amounted to about 3s. 5d. per week. Subsidies under this Bill are something like three times that amount, and quite properly, because it is not only special classes of the population but the whole population which is suffering from the housing shortage, they are for general needs. The general standard amount, as it is called, of £22 per house for 60 years amounts to a payment over 60 years, of no less than £1,320 per cottage. Its capitalised value at the present moment amounts to £594. The standard rural subsidy capitalised amounts to £768 per house. Where land is expensive, but not very expensive as things go in central urban areas, and flats with lifts are built, the corresponding figure goes up to £1,400 per flat or more for a flat of 750 or it may be 800 feet. Incidentally, may I say how wholeheartedly we on this side of the House agree that flats with four storeys or more should be provided with lifts. It is not only those described by the Parliamentary Secretary who have suffered from having to carry young children and heavy burdens to the fourth floor of a block of flats or chambers without a lift. If I may say so, I myself experienced that in the early years of my married life in the Temple.

These figures are very high. No one can say they are other than alarming. That may be inevitable, I think, in this present period of general dislocation, but unless they can be brought down—and they can only be brought down by a fall in building costs—our housing programme is not going to make the progress it should. I was glad to hear the perfectly definite statement that it is the Government's intention to bring those costs down. The question is, are they going the right way to do it? We believe that the best way to bring down housing costs is not by the Minister of Health and his officials cutting off the frills, or rejecting tenders. We believe that the experience of the years between the wars, shows definitely that it is competitive enterprise which brings down housing costs.

The second general reflection with regard to the housing subsidy, which I should like to put before the House is this. The higher the figures, the more necessary it is to see that the benefits of these very large charges on the taxpayer and the ratepayer, reach the right people. I am very much afraid that under the Government's restrictive policy this will not be achieved. They are concentrating almost exclusively on municipal houses and flats. I believe that the result of this policy will be that a small number, and a lamentably small number during the first year of this affair, will get the benefit of these very large sums provided by the taxpayer and the ratepayer. Those who are not accepted as tenants by the local authority, will be carrying a heavy burden in respect of this particular programme. I am afraid that the restrictions of the Government, and the rate aid to this limited class, may cause a lot of ill feeling amongst those who are not fortunate in getting any of the very few houses that seem likely to be built on the programme as it is working out at present. This programme is for general needs and, owing to the Government's policy, large numbers of people are going to be driven to apply for municipal houses, thereby burdening the already enormous lists that all local authorities have, people who would never have been on the lists but for the restrictive character of the Government's policy.

May I mention in passing a matter on which I have felt the greatest dissatisfaction? I have been seeking for two months to get from the Parliamentary Secretary or from the Minister of Health a reply to this question. All of us have found that local authorities are laying great stress on a long standing residential qualification, in dealing with the allocation of housing. It was on 27th December last year that I asked the Parliamentary Secretary what was the policy of the Ministry of Health with regard to those in equally great need but without a residential qualification. I gave an obvious example which has come to my notice half a dozen times already in my constituency—the case of the regular soldiers, sailors and airmen, who are being turned down, and given no priority whatever by local authorities, because they have no residential qualification. For over two months now I have waited for a reply.

We have the advantage, in this Debate, that a week or two ago the Government issued a paper called "Housing Return for England and Wales" The Minister of Health has presented this return and it gives us the setting in which he is presenting these financial proposals. I think it is useful to consider certain features in that report, because the House and the country have been given facts from which some useful and illuminating lessons can be drawn. I cannot think that even the Minister of Health is likely to claim that his White Paper has excited enthusiastic comment. It paints a very gloomy picture and, in my opinion, gives very little support to the theory that "Labour gets things done." Certainly, the secretiveness which the Minister has shown over the last seven months hasindicated a remarkable reluctance to let the people know what Labour is doing. It is in marked contrast to the free and full reports that were made during an earlier housing crisis, when the enemy was the foreign enemy, whereas today the enemy is the policy of the Minister of Health.

However generous we may want to be on the point that it would be unreasonable to expect many houses to have been completed by 31st January, 1946, there are some danger signals in the report. I do not think the Parliamentary Secretary stated the primary objective of the Government quite accurately when he said that they are limiting their efforts to permanent houses. Included in the primary objective of the Government should be the provision, at the earliest possible date, of 150,000 temporary houses. Local authorities are to be congratulated on their achievements in connection with the acquisition of sites for temporary houses. It is, clearly, very creditable to them that site development has been completed for 67,000 of these houses. On the other hand, it does not seem to speak very highly for any increase in drive from the Minister of Health that, whether one takes the beginning or completion of site development, rather less has been done during the time he has been in office, than was done during the time that we were at war.

As regards temporary houses, there is far too wide a gap between the figures for slabbing completed and erection begun. On 31st January last slabbing had been completed for 40,361 houses, and the erection of only 25,625 houses had begun, and only 12,025 houses had been completed. It is only too clear that some- thing is far from right in the progress in that part of the operations for which the Minister of Works is responsible. Indeed, yesterday the right hon. Gentleman, in a written reply to a Question, gave figures about the production of temporary houses which confirmed those of us who are anxious about the efficiency of closely centralised and nationalised production. Is it not extremely disappointing that whereas up to July last the weekly average number of completed temporary houses handed to local authorities was 150, six months later the figure had only gone up to 385? That is after six months of peacetime production. The whole country has noticed the difference between the number of houses completed by private enterprise to 31st January last, and the number completed by local authorities. More than three times the number have been completed by private enterprise, in spite of all the discouragement to which they have been subjected.

A further matter in this Report which causes me some dismay is the small pro portion of the building industry which is engaged, nearly nine months after the end of the war with Germany, on the building of permanent houses. It will have been observed that this is no more than 28,000 out of 404,000. The principle of the Government — to give full and first priority to the building of permanent houses — is not giving much in the way of results. But to my mind perhaps the most significant figure of all those in this report is one to which not so much attention has been drawn. It is related to this dominant principle of the Government that all their confidence, with the exception of setting up some supplementary housing associations, is to be given to the local authorities in the country. On 31st January last, 148 local authorities, more than 10 per cent, of the whole, had not one site in their possession on which to build a house. On 31st January last, there were more than 25 per cent, of the local authorities who had not obtained authority to go to tender for one scheme or one house. There, one sees the sort of delay which will arise —

Mr. Walkden (Doncaster)

Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give the House any idea of the political complexion of the authorities he is now quoting?

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

That is a new one.

Mr. Willink

The question put by the hon. Member opposite is quite irrelevant. If the local authorities I have in mind have a political complexion which can justifiably be suggested as making them unlikely to build houses, the Minister ought to get houses built by some other means.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)


Mr. Willink

It is impossible to expect houses to be built at the rate we need them, if, seven months after the war, 25 per cent. of the most important agency has made no progress.

Mr. Bevan

Did the right hon. and learned Gentleman say "most important?"

Mr. Willink

Yes. What sign of the housing drive we have been promised can be seen in this 25 per cent. of these authorities? This is a serious matter. We warned the Government, and we warn them again, that there are many local authorities which, this year, cannot possibly be equipped with personnel or experience to do the job which needs to be done. The main reason why we consider this Bill so unsatisfactory is that it is described as a Bill which the Government consider necessary: … for the making of contributions, grants and loans in connection with the provision of housing accommodation: … but that it makes no provision except to a limited extent in agricultural areas for the building of houses by private enterprise, which built four out of five of all the houses which were built before the war. It is, accordingly, unjust to those who wish to buy, or rent, houses for themselves.

That is one of the grounds, but there are others to which I shall refer. A moment ago, I mentioned incidentally agricultural housing. The part of the Bill which deals with this is another part that is discriminatory and unfair. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson) asked, more than a fortnight ago, a question to which he has as yet received no answer. Certainly he received none in the Debate on that occasion. I hope the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health will answer that question at the end of this Debate. Why is there such an immense difference between the special standard amount of the rural subsidy, £ 28 10s. for 60 years to a local authority, and £ 15 for 40 years to anyone else building a comparable cottage to let in the countryside? The local authority is being given a subsidy nearly three times as big as anybody else who builds a comparable cottage to let is to receive under this Bill, and that in spite of the fact that the rent to be charged by the private person is pegged to the same limits as that charged by the local authority.

Why, again, when all on the Ridley Committee, including members of the party opposite, agreed that there are circumstances in which the principle of the cottage occupied by virtue of service — what is sometimes called the tied cottage — is both necessary and reasonable, particularly in certain aspects of rural life, is it that, under this Bill, there is to be no subsidy for a farmer who wants to build houses for his men and their families? So far as the countryside is concerned, how much longer has the country got to wait before the Government restore the grants for reconditioning, much of which could now be going ahead, to such immense advantage? It has been said that the cottages to be built under this Bill will be let at a rent of 7s. 6d., and of course, if the 10s. is right, the 7s. 6d. is right; but I ask the Minister to give a more satisfactory reply than he gave yesterday as to the basis on which he estimates that it will be possible to achieve those rents. Incidentally, may I call the attention of the House to the fact that the Minister of Health quite gladly gave a Written Answer yesterday on the very point on which he refused to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) about 20 minutes ago. He was asked yesterday what was the average cost of the typical three-bedroom permanent house approved by him and accepted by local authorities"; and he gave the figure in these words: The average cost of a permanent three-bedroom house in tenders submitted by local authorities and approved by me up to 31st January, 1946, is approximately £ 980."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th March, 1946; Vol. 420; c. 60.] What a fantastic example of forensic indignation of an entirely unreal kind —

Mr. Key

May I point out that the question was addressed to me? I said I was not prepared to give the answer for which I was asked, and that was the figure that was taken as the basis for calculations for subsidy, and not the figure of the cost of the house.

Mr. Willink

The House will recollect both the attitude indicated by the Minister of Health and the question that was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford.

There is another point in connection with the omissions from this Bill on which I would like to lay great emphasis. More than a year ago—in January of last year, to be precise—I suggested to the Central Housing Advisory Committee that it would be useful to have their advice on the place to be filled in the immediate post-war programme by the conversion and adaptation of existing houses. I felt certain, from what I had seen in London and Greater London particularly, that there was great scope for a very large addition to our housing resources at an early date by this means, and I suggested most, if not all, of the names for a special committee. They included the right hon. Gentleman who is now Minister of Town and Country Planning, the hon. Gentleman who is now Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, Sir George Burt, the City Architect of Liverpool, and many other most experienced and representative men and women —14 in number. The present Minister of Health had the advantage of their advice four weeks after his appointment. These ladies and gentlemen, including the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, advised in the clearest terms that there was a very substantial amount of accommodation to be thus made available in the immediate postwar period. They advised that this work should be given the same priority in respect of components and equipment as all other types of work. They advised that not only conversion, but — because of the urgency — adaptation, of housing should be done in this immediate period. They recommended unanimously — the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health included — and as they put it, without hesitation, that financial assistance should be given both to local authorities and to private owners for this purpose. Twenty minutes ago, we heard the Parliamentary Secretary eating what some hon. Members no doubt did not realise were his own words.

Six months after receiving this advice, on 14th February, the Minister of Health told the House, in answer to a question, that the report was still under consideration. This is gross delay. It is another example of a restrictive policy, because what the Minister wants to do is to get the greatest number of municipal cottages and municipal flats without regard, I dare to say, to the main question, which is the maximum increase in the number of good homes for the people. There would have been no difficulty in working out this advice given by a most experienced committee, and I feel certain that it has been rejected not on its merits, but because the advice involved assistance to private people for this most essential purpose, a policy against which the Minister has absolutely set his face, and has set his face in a manner which will do the greatest possible damage to all progress in this field.

I do not propose to go into the details of this Bill. There are many good proposals in it so far also cal authority finance is concerned, but the restriction to local authorities already is showing the perils and dangers that we indicated it would. It is one more example of the failure of His Majesty's Government to deal with the practical tasks which are their responsibility, and we on this side cannot possibly take any sort of responsibility for a Bill so limited and so inadequate to the purpose with which it pretends to deal.

4.38 p.m.

Mr. Alpass (Thornbury)

I intervene in this Debate because the provision of housing accommodation is of vital and urgent concern to the people whom I represent. It was a burning and dominant issue at the General Election, and I am sure that very large numbers of people were influenced to vote for the Labour Party candidates because they felt that only by pinning their faith and hopes in a Labour Government would it be possible for this great need of housing to be satisfied. I think that history is already beginning to prove that their faith was not misplaced. [Interruption.] It ill becomes Members of the Tory Party to laugh and chide our Government and party. The country is, today, suffering from a legacy of neglect and callous indifference to this question by the Party opposite, which was in power for 25 years. I think that before hon. Members opposite sneer at hon. Members on this side, they should examine their own very unsatisfactory record in regard to housing. This problem is not confined, as is sometimes suggested, to the large towns and cities. It is not confined exclusively to industrial areas. It is, as many of us know from practical experience, just as acute and serious in country districts as it is in the large cities. In 1936, a survey was made of the housing conditions in the country districts. The facts disclosed showed that there were 42,000 families in country districts living in overcrowded conditions. This is no new problem. It is, as I have said, a legacy left to us by previous Tory Governments.

A little while ago I addressed a questionnaire to the clerks of all the housing authorities in my Division — the district councils and the urban councils — and their replies all revealed the same shockingly serious and disgraceful conditions of housing in that part of the country. Very large numbers of people are living in conditions which are a disgrace to our boasted civilisation. In my own constituency the horses which are ridden to hounds — we have two packs — are immeasurably better housed than the men, women and children who live there. The authorities in the largest rural district have sent me information to the effect that the most recent survey of housing conditions in their area shows that only 20 per cent. of the houses were fit to live in, 35 per cent. required major repairs, while a very large proportion of the others were in such a dilapidated state as to be beyond repair, and had to be condemned. I have received, as no doubt many of my hon. Friends have received, the most piteous appeals revealing the tragic circumstances in which so many of our people have to exist. I have investigated some of these conditions personally, and if the House will allow me I will give two examples.

In the middle of my constituency, in a very beautiful part of the country. there are houses on entering which one steps straight from the street into the only living room, on to a cold, hard floor. The sole domestic arrangement is a very small scullery, separated from this one living room by a board partition. Going upstairs with great difficulty—the stairs are rickety and the walls are crumbling to pieces so that the sunlight can be seen outside—one finds only one bedroom. A mother, father, and four children, with another expected shortly live in one of these houses. The parents and two of the children sleep in one room, while the other two children sleep in a bed improvised on the landing. There is no sanitation whatever. That is one of the many so-called houses—I prefer to call them hovels—which have been condemned in my constituency for over 40 years. Let hon. Members on the other side of the House digest that fact.

Again, I have received a letter from one of my constituents in which he says that his only living accommodation is one poor room upstairs. He and his wife and two children have to sleep in one bed, and in order to provide some kind of accommodation for the other two children they have had to put them into hammocks swung from one beam in the roof to another. Those are the conditions which have prevailed too widely and for too long. I submit that we have no right to tolerate them any longer and that they should be remedied as soon as is humanly possible. The urgent need is for well built houses with modern amenities and after the splendid and stimulating speech of the Parliamentary Secretary describing this Bill I believe that we are going to have well built houses and that the standard is to be improved. These houses must be built to be let under the subsidies suggested in the Bill at rents which the people can afford.

Past experience has proved without a shadow of doubt that this can only be effected by entrusting the duty to our local authorities. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Very well, let us look at the facts. Great play was made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) the former Minister of Health on the subject of what private builders have done. What did they do between the years 1920 and 1937? Of all the houses that were erected by private enterprise in that period only 15 per cent were built to let. Private builders are not in business for that purpose. They are in business to make a profit, and when one knows, as I do in the city where I live, private builders who boast that they never think of building a house without obtaining at least £ 100 profit, and that they regard that as a small sum anyway, is it to be suggested that they are going to tackle this vitally important question of building houses to let? Private enterprise may have some virtues, but I do not think it is strong enough morally to approach the question from that standpoint, and past experience has shown that to rely upon it is to rely upon a broken reed. The Minister has not ruled out entirely the contribution which private builders canmake— the number of licences which have been issued proves that—but I suggest that he has acted very wisely indeed, in giving discretion on this matter to the local authorities who know the circumstances. They have full authority to issue licences when they are satisfied that it will not interfere with the development of the scheme as a whole.

I would interpolate one point which, I feel, is pertinent to this question of housing. It is on the subject of water supply. In a very large part of my constituency no proper water supply has ever been provided. One local district council has gone to a great amount of trouble and expense to prepare a scheme in conjunction with the Gloucester corporation, who have decided to extend their mains so that houses can be erected. Hon. Members will appreciate that it is impossible to build houses unless there is a water supply. I put in a plea to the Minister of Health and to the Parliamentary Secretary that when the scheme is submitted to them on behalf of the district council, they will give it their most favourable and sympathetic consideration.

Much has been said about the refusal of the Government to renew the Housing (Rural Workers) Act. I very heartily commend their decision. As a member of my county council have had some little experience in administering that Act. When I was in the House of Commons in the 1929–1931 Parliament, I was accused by my predecessor of using my influence to prevent my county council operating that Act. My reply was that it was not true, and that, if it was true, it would have been a very great compliment to suggest that I was able to influence so many of my opponents on the county council. Under that Act, county councils had two alternatives. To assist private persons to improve their property they could make a grant or gift, or they could do it by way of a loan. I always advocated that if any assistance were given to private individuals, it should be given by way of loan and not by way of gift. Who was among the first persons to apply in our district, not for assistance by way of loan but for a gift? The wife of the gentleman who used to be the Chief Whip of the Tory Party in the 1929 Parliament, reputed to be the third richest lady in this country. We made such a fuss about it and exposed it so, that she soon withdrew her application. She could not face the public music.

We are entirely against assisting private individuals to put their property in order, out of public funds. We oppose it as a matter of principle and public policy. There has been too much of that kind of thing Our opponents were always decrying what they used to call "the dole," but they are never above holding out their hands for subsidies and grants, to enable them to carry out what is, after all, a legal and moral obligation. It has always been assumed that good estate management meant that the owner of the estate had to provide, out of his own resources, a sufficient number of cottages on his farms to enable those farms to be cultivated properly. Our opponents have failed in that duty; now they come to us, and ask us to find money to relieve them of an obligation which they have too long evaded. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but what I say is true, and they know it. As I understand the position, the main reason why the Minister has decided not to reintroduce the Act, is that all those houses, or a very large proportion of them, were owned by private landlords, and were not owner-occupied. As a matter of fact, out of the number of houses that we put into condition under the Act, fewer than one half —46 per cent. — were occupied by agricultural workers. The main reason why we objected to the Act was that it would perpetuate and intensify what we regarded as a pernicious evil, the tied cottage system.

The right hon. and learned Member for North Croydon mentioned that expression. Let me tell him what happens. A fortnight ago I received a letter from one of my constituents saying that he had been working on the land for 50 years. He had worked for one farmer for 30 years. In the course of the work, the horses ran away and his legs were broken. Before he was restored to health he received notice, and had to quit his cottage. We object to this system because it places in the hands of landlords unfair power over the lives of the workers. It condemns the workers to insecurity and destroys their freedom of action. It is sometimes stated that this arbitrary power is not used very often. Let me give the House figures which were supplied to me by the National Union of Agricultural Workers. They say: The number of ejectment orders now being made is assuming the dimensions of a national scandal. The wives of prisoners of war at Singapore and elsewhere have been turned out of their cottages with nowhere else to go. I have known cases in which occupants of cottages were turned out on to the verge by the roadside, and had to live—or exist —under a tent. The statement goes on: In recent months orders have been made in Norfolk in respect of a cottage occupied by a widower who was caring for his mother-in-law, aged over 90 years, and in respect of the cottage occupied by a woman alderman of 67 years of age, suffering from valvular disease of the heart who had occupied the cottage for 56 years. Cases of this kind could be multiplied. The problem of the ordinary farm tied cottage has been greatly worsened.' Do the landlords use this power often? The statement says: Between 1930 and 1938 our Union handled more than 10,000 cases where possession of tied cottages was sought. In the last few months we have had cases in which farm workers, injured during the course of their employment, have been given notice to quit their cottages and in which widows of farm workers have been threatened with eviction. That is the evidence given in a report by the men's union. I hope that the Government will not be influenced by any kind of argument about preserving the beauty of these cottages. I have seen some very picturesque thatched cottages. I knew one in which, as the young fellows grew up to 20 and 21 years of age, they were stricken down with tuberculosis—the whole family. Some cottages are very pretty in the eyes of people who come out of the towns to look at them, but are disastrous to the health of those who have to live in them. .I was amazed to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman speak about cost. Every medical authority would agree that bad housing conditions have a very deleterious effect upon the health of the people—nothingmore so. Which is cheaper, which is a better investment for the country, from every standpoint—to build good houses and healthy homes for the people, even if it costs us a bit, or to allow those evil conditions to continue and disease to develop, and then to spend tremendous sums of money upon hospitals to cure them? That is apart from the great loss involved to the nation.

I am sorry to have taken so much of the time of the House on this matter, but it is one upon which I have felt very deeply eversince I became interested in politics. I have known cases, having lived among these people, of the most wretched and inhuman housing conditions. I shall be delighted to know that the first Labour Government has contributed materially to the improvement of these conditions. From the bottom of my heart I welcome this Bill and give it my warmest support. It provides, as the Parliamentary Secretary said, in introducing it, the largest financial assistance, the highest subsidy ever offered to local authorities. It should, and I feel will be, a real inducement to them to go forward with speed and determination, to discharge the important duty of providing our people with decent homes, with modern amenities in which they and their families can live in comfort and happiness.

5.0 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Hare (Woodbridge)

I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise the very great sincerity with which the hon. Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass) has spoken. Sincerity is a quality we admire and respect in this House, but it is no use going into sentimental arguments as to the causes for the housing shortage. The business before us today is to discuss whether this Bill will actually provide us with the houses we so urgently need. Like other hon. Members on this side of the House, I view this Bill with grave misgivings, not because of what it contains, but because of what it omits. I think the provisions of this Bill are sound but I hope that in the Committee Stage we shall be able to make improvements.

It is no use disguising the fact that the last six months on the housing front have been full of disappointments. The high hopes the Government inspired both in their Election campaign and in statements made by responsible Ministers since the Election, have been dashed to the ground. During this initial period of six months, a great deal of work has been done in the way of bomb damage repair in the town areas, but in the country areas where the reconditioning of cottages and farm buildings is the greatest problem with which we are faced, there has been practically nothing done at all. The contribution that hundreds of small contractors throughout the country districts could have made towards a solution of this problem have been completely nullified by the repeal of the Housing (Rural Workers) Act. It is no use the hon. Member for Thornbury producing letters from his constituents, because I could bore the House with an equal number of letters from constituents who have been prevented from putting their houses in order owing to the repeal of that Act. Meanwhile local authorities, urban and rural, have striven manfully to get their housing programmes under way, but at every turn they have had to face delay. Tenders are submitted for approval and passed from Government Department to Government Department. They are returned for some adjustment, they are then sent back, returned again for further readjustment, and the same interminable process of delay continues when the issue of the licence for materials is required for works which have at last been approved.

It would not have been unreasonable for the people of this country to have expected a small stream of houses to have started flowing into production and completion by 31st January of this year. Instead, hon. Members opposite will agree, only a minute trickle has materialised. We are promised a flood in the spring and autumn; let us hope these promises will materialise. I think the production of 350 permanent houses by all the local authorities in England and Wales has come as a great shock to the hundreds of thousands of anxious families waiting for new homes. We have to face the fact that a bad start has been made, but I am sure hon. Members will agree that it is the duty of hon. Members on both sides of the House to contribute what they can to improve matters. We on this side of the House feel that housing should be treated as a combined operation and that every possible agency should be employed to solve the problem. We suggest strongly that political prejudice should not be allowed to enter into the matter. In this Bill the Minister pins his whole faith to the local authorities, and turns his back on private enterprise. Why? He explained the reasons very clearly in his statement in October to this House. He blames private enterprise for what he describes as "the marzipan ribbon development" that took place after the last war. He accuses the speculative builder of a series of monstrous crimes against aesthetics. That is the background of his prejudice against the private building industry. Surely such arguments are not valid today. Of course there was shocking development after the 1914–18 war, but to condemn the whole of the building industry for the bad behaviour of a small section of its community, is carrying prejudice much too far. The Minister knows perfectly well that he and his right hon. Friend the Minister of Town and Country Planning have ample powers to make such a development impossible. He is merely begging the question by using arguments of this kind.

In the Minister's decision that priority should be given to the construction of houses for the lower income groups, we on this side of the House fully concur. But our contention is that private enterprise, given a proper directive and adequate financial assistance from the Minister, can, in combination with the local authorities, make an enormous contribution to this very task.

With building costs at their present level some subsidy is necessary to the private builder, but this Bill, with the exception of a very small and, in my opinion, inadequate concession to those who wish to build cottages for agricultural workers, does not provide any such subsidy. I am certain that once the flow of houses is started on a large scale the subsidies to private enterprise, if the Minister would change his mind, could be reduced gradually to nothing. We saw this happening after the last war and I am certain the efficiency of the industry, if given its head, under adequate control, would ensure the reduction of these costs very rapidly. It is this question of costs which is the Minister's greatest headache at the moment and only if he succeeds in reducing costs will his building programme have any chance of succeeding. I hope he will tell us in some detail at the end of the Debate what steps he is taking in this respect. I understand that others far more qualified than I am are going to discuss this all-important question of costs and therefore I will leave it for the moment.

There are several points aboutwhich I would be grateful for information from the Minister. Under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1944, the Minister can make a grant to a local authority towards the loan charges for the acquisition of bomb devastated sites. Will those who have received assistance towards the acquisition of these bombed area sites qualify for the grant under Clause 4 of this Act by which any local authority is entitled to extra Exchequer assistance for the erection of flats on sites costing more than £1,500 per acre? Can it be made quite clear than no grant made by the Exchequer will prejudice the actual cost which a local authority has incurred in purchasing such a site? This is an important point affecting large towns, such as London and Liverpool, which suffered severe enemy air attacks on their vital centres of industry and population.

That brings me to my next point. If full advantage of the subsidies contained in this Bill is to be taken by local authorities, a statement from the right hon. Gentleman's colleague, the Minister of Town and Country Planning, is necessary, because these local authorities wish to know how far the Minister of Town and Country Planning is prepared to exercise his powers, under the 1944 Act, in giving assistance towards loan charges for the acquisition of these blitzed areas. Powers granted under this Bill enable the Minister to make a full contribution towards the loan charges for the acquisition of such a site for two years. He can extend that contribution for a further eight years, and, if he thinks fit, this contribution by the Exchequer towards the loan charges can be extended for a further five years, making a maximum period for Exchequer assistance of 15 years.

I fear that many local authorities will hesitate to go ahead and develop sites of the type I have mentioned unless some clarification of what the Minister intends to do is made available at an early date. In July last, the L.C.C. decided to approach the Minister of Town and Country Planning on this very point. It will be noted that the "Caretaker" Government was in power at that date. Unfortunately, in August certain undesirable events took place. The result of that was that Lord Latham, who leads the L.C.C, has not, in actual fact, approached the Minister of Town and Country Planning on the subject despite the fact that his Council had decided that this should be done. Presumably, he does not wish to embarrass his Socialist friends in Westminster. But clarification on that point would be of enormous assistance if the Minister is really anxious for local authorities to go ahead with their development plans, and make use of the powers which will be made available when this present Bill becomes law.

Finally, I wish to deal with the desirability of the erection, by local authorities, of a greater proportion of new houses for sale rather than for rent. The normal man, whether he be rich or poor, wishes to own the house in which be lives Both sides of the House will be unanimous on that. The Minister himself last October said that the Government did not desire to prevent people from owning their own houses. According to his own statement, if his plans materialise and are successful, the future trend of the provision of houses will be for local authorities to provide four houses to every one house produced by private enterprise. As the number of houses available for sale will thus be considerably reduced, I hope that the Minister will undertake to stress to local authorities that they should exercise their existing powers, both to provide houses for sale, as they can do under the 1936 Housing Act, and to make loans at low rates of interest to those who are anxious to acquire them.

There are two very strong arguments in favour of such a course. Firstly, wages have risen considerably since 1939, and it is true to say that the ranks of potential house owners have enormously swollen since that date. In highly socialised countries such as Sweden and Denmark, it is the universal practice for the municipality to provide houses for the lower paid workers for sale rather than for rent. Members who have had a chance to go to those countries will agree that we have a lot to learn from them in regard to their lay-out of sites, and their development and technique in house construction. Secondly, the Minister has rightly said on many occasions that mixed development has been almost non-existent in the past. There has been almost a complete division between income groups. They live in separate colonies. I understand, from a statement which appeared in the Press as the result of a private conference which the Minister had in Newcastle last weekend, that there is a good chance that he will encourage the provision of homes for the higher income groups in new estate development. I hope he will take a leaf out of the Tory manifesto in the present L.C.C. Election.

Mr. Bevan

I will take all the leaves out.

Lieut.-Colonel Hare

If the right hon. Gentleman has had the good sense to read that manifesto he will have seen that we recommend that a proportion of all new large estates that are being developed shall be earmarked for these who wish to purchase and not to rent their homes. It will require a very strong lead from the Minister to persuade local authorities to alter customs to which they have been accustomed in the past. I hope that some assurance on that point will be forthcoming in the Debate.

In conclusion, may I say that I know there is no one more sincerely devoted to his task than the Minister, or more anxious to deal with this housing problem? I regret that I do not believe he is going the right way about it I hope I am wrong. I trust that he will seriously consider the many points of criticism which will be raised in this Debate. Perhaps the experience of a fellow Socialist, Dr. Addison as he then was, who was confronted with almost this identical position after the last war, may be worth noting. Like the present Minister of Health, he started off by concentrating the whole of his housing programme through the local authorities by means of the 1919 Housing Act. Towards the end of that year he panicked—I hope the present Minister will not do so—and he gave private enterprise subsidies far greater than it need have had. The result of his efforts, as we know, was complete failure. It was not until 1923, when the late Mr. Neville Chamberlain became Minister of Health, that any real progress towards dealing with the housing problem was begun— [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]. Whether hon. Members opposite like it or not the annual output of houses increased from that date, and that is a fact. I believe that the Minister is humble enough to realise that valuable lessons may be learned from the past. I hope that he can be persuaded to profit by them.

5.19 p.m.

Lady Megan Lloyd-George (Anglesey)

I rise to support wholeheartedly the Bill which is before the House today. I would like to congratulate the Minister on it, and also the Parliamentary Secretary upon the sturdy and vigorous speech with which he introduced it. My only complaint of substance against the Bill is that I wish it had been introduced earlier because, quite frankly, I think that a great number of local authorities in the country have held back from drawing up their plans, because of the fact that they did not know what the rate of subsidy was to be. I believe this to be particularly so in rural areas where the dominating factor and the great stumbling block in the years before the war has been the lack of finance. May I say to the Minister, therefore, that I particularly welcome the section of the Bill which deals with the special Exchequer contribution to be made in rural areas and for the agricultural population? These proposals are taken, I am glad to think, lock, stock and barrel from the Hobhouse Report. As a member of that Committee, as is also my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson), I would like to congratulate the Minister on showing, in this instance, his native shrewdness in knowing a good thing when he sees it.

As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass) earlier in the Debate, there are houses in some of the loveliest villages in every part of these islands which are as deplorable and as injurious to health as any house you could find in the worst slums in the great cities. There is no excuse for a slum anywhere. There is less excuse, somehow, for slums in country villages. It is in these very areas where it is most necessary to build new, modern houses, that the product of a penny rate is so low. Therefore, you get this vicious circle of poverty. I for one am thankful from my heart that this vicious circle is at last to be broken. I hope it is. If it is not, then we shall have to take further measures to see that it is.

At any rate, here is an attempt to break that circle. I would like to quote only one of many instances, of these hard-hit areas. This particular case is in my own constituency, where the product of a penny rate is under £700. When the Rural Housing Committee was considering this matter there were no statistics, no arguments, brought before them which were so convincing to their minds as a visit to Anglesey. It is very easy to condemn some of these smaller local authorities out of hand. Some of them are recalcitrant. I very much hope that the right hon. Gentleman will whip them up. I hope he will use the powers he possesses. At the same time we must remember that the great majority of them have been up against circumstances which they could not overcome. How was it possible for them, with all the burdens that have heaped upon them in late years, and with their means so restricted, to face up to a great housing programme? I am very glad, as I say, that at least their special difficulties have been realised, and to some extent, met in this Bill.

Hon. Gentlemen above the Gangway set great store upon reconditioning cottages in rural areas. They say, "Why not revive the Housing (Rural Workers) Act, or substitute for it some similar provision?" Well, this matter again has been referred by the Minister to the Hobhouse Committee of which I am a member. That committee have produced an interim report. I do not know whether it is the intention of the Minister to publish that report. All that it would be proper for me to say at the moment is that I do believe that in the present critical housing shortage, all means should be used— [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Yes, but should be used to increase suitable accommodation. That is a very important proviso. How much increased accommodation is going to be made available if we recondition? In many cases there would be no increase. Houses may be improved and that is a very desirable thing. But I believe that hon. Gentlemen above the Gangway have always exaggerated the contribution that reconditioning can make.

I believe that the Housing (Rural Workers) Act was a very useful Act. I supported it, but I would point out that even in the peak year, when its provisions were used most, only 1,800 houses were reconditioned. That was only in very limited parts of the country. There were some counties which never made any use of the Act at all. There were counties like Devon which had an extremely good record, but, taking the country by and large, it did not result in a very great increase in accommodation. I think that, whatever decision the Minister comes to on this matter, there are two conditions which must be observed. One is that, in the desire to recondition houses in rural areas, standards must not be allowed to be debased. I think there is a very real danger of that happening and of houses being brought into use that really ought to be condemned. The other condition is that labour should not be diverted for this purpose from the building of new permanent houses which, I think, should be a far more important consideration.

I would like to follow the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) in one or two things that he said about the setting in which we have to look at this Bill, and the means which are at our disposal to make it effective. I would ask the Minister one thing with regard to the progress reports that he is now going to publish from time to time. I do not know whether it would be possible, say at quarterly intervals, if not more often, to make available the number of applications for houses which are on the books of local authorities, so that we may be in a better position to measure, on one side, the problem, and on the other side to assess the progress that is being made in dealing with the housing shortage in various parts of the country.

Mr. Bevan

May I answer that point now? I may not have time to deal with all these points later. It would be a very misleading figure. Numbers of people have their names on several lists, especially in crowded cities. The lists would be unduly swollen, and would not be an accurate representation of the position. Furthermore, a lot of people leave their names on the list even when they have obtained accommodation.

Lady Megan Lloyd-George

I fully appreciate the difficulty, but I ask the Minister whether it would not be possible for these local authorities to give, at any rate, an approximate figure as to the number of applications. After all, we must be able somehow to measure the problem. The right hon. and learned Member for North Croydon expressed this afternoon disappointment at the number of houses that have been built. He said what a miserable few they are. I would point out that the right hon. and learned Gentleman himself has some responsibility in this matter. Before the war it was estimated, I think, that six months was a fair period between the time when the plans were approved, and in their final stages, and the completed house. Taking into consideration the difficulties of today, it would be fair to say, I suppose, that the period is now something like five or six months.

So that, in fact, these figures which were produced by the Minister the other day are the result, very largely, of the plans left in the Ministry by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for North Croydon himself. Certainly no one would say they are very impressive figures—352 houses completed and 17,000 begun, and, temporary houses, 12,000 erected and 25,000 begun. I would like to say, however, that that is not the whole of the picture given in the returns by any means. There is the very important fact that 113,000 families have been re-housed in 10 months. That is a big job, which had to be done, and let us not forget that that job has absorbed just under half the whole of the building labour available at this moment. I think myself it is too early to sit in judgment on the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)

Does not that reflect very great credit on the plans of my right hon. and learned Friend?

Lady Megan Lloyd-George

Really, the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot complain about the appalling progress made and in the same breath take credit for the progress made under the plans of his right hon. Friend the Member for North Croydon. I would like to say that the Minister of Health has told us that we shall see the houses going up in the spring. By all accounts, spring will be a little late this year, but it is not to be wondered at. Let us be quite fair to the Minister. He has an immense task and immense difficulties to face. They are just as formidable as the difficulties which faced us on the question of supply during the war. After all, the right hon. Gentleman came into office in August, with the war only just over, and when the active building season was practically at an end. Further, the switchover from war to peace production had not begun, and that is a very important consideration. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) told this House that the conversion of British industry from peace to war required four years to reach its climax, and we are dealing here in this progress report with a period of only six months. I remember that, in those days, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health was sometimes a little impatient, and I wonder, if the two Front Benches exchanged memories of those days, if it would induce in them a more tolerant frame of mind. I think the real test of the right hon. Gentleman is not what he has achieved in the last six months, but what he is going to achieve in the next six months. I think the real test is whether he is really organising production on a large enough scale, whether the machine is being properly geared up —

5.35 p.m.

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